Turns on the Century

Communications Technology

In this occasional feature, Boston College faculty offer their comments on key trends the 20th century, and how those trends are likely to play out in the 21st century.

Assoc. Prof. Dale Herbeck (Communication) is an expert on debate, public argument and freedom of expression issues: "It's said that the recent innovations in communications technology have greatly expanded public discourse, but we actually appear to be moving the opposite way. Look at the development of communication: We went from the speaking model, one communicating to a relative few, to the printing model - one to many - and finally to mass media - one to very many.

"Now, with cable and satellite TV, that mass audience has actually become more segmented. You've got people watching a channel devoted entirely to golf, for example . The Internet also has the illusion of one interacting with many, but it's really become more a case of point-to-point.

"Large companies are buying up more and more space on the World Wide Web, and Web sites are now carrying advertisements. There's a database being developed that will enable politicians or political organizations to put you on an automated e-mail list.

"The Internet, like other communications technology which came before it, is tremendously empowering but is subject to much of the same problems and issues that TV and radio encountered."

Assoc. Research Prof. Richard Spinello (CSOM) is the author of Ethical Aspects of Information Technology and Corporate Instinct: Building a Knowing Enterprise for the 21st Century : "The boom in communications technology has created, or at least exacerbated, some complicated ethical issues in the workplace: privacy versus productivity, for example, and appropriate use of technology. It's also changing the nature of the organization, the relationship between employer and employees.

"Work time used to be strictly defined. But, as first the telephone, then the fax and now e-mail became more widely used in offices, it became commonplace for people to intersperse their personal and business-related communication s .

"Organizations are concerned about this trend for reasons like lost productivity, or the danger of incurring liability if an employee were to misuse the technology, such as to harass or defraud someone. Many chose to strictly monitor employees use of communications technology.

"This has created tension over whether an organization is ferreting out a specific problem, or treading on employees' privacy indiscriminately. Because communications technology is only going to get better, and because the courts have tended to hold employers responsible for their employees' actions, this is an issue which will not go away any time soon."

Senior Lect. Michael Keith (Communication) , author of Waves of Rancor: Tuning In the Radical Right , has written extensively on the evolution of radio broadcasting: "Radio tends to be overlooked in the communications technology arena, but it has actually proved more impervious to changes than other forms of mass media. Look at broadcast TV, which supplanted radio in popularity: It's now under duress from cable and satellite TV, and no longer has the hold it once did. But radio is still the most-used electronic medium in the world from 6 a.m. until evening.

"New technology is going to affect radio, however. Radio will soon shift from analog to digital. That will motivate consumers to go and get new radios to utilize the new technology. There will also be 'smart receivers,' which will come with small screens that enable the listener to get information about the station or program they're listening to. Ironically, in its infancy television was actually known as 'sight radio,' and now it appears radio will no longer be a sightless medium."

-Sean Smith

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